060: Conversations about Outside Pathways

Good Fit Poor Fit
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060: Conversations about Outside Pathways

Show Notes:

Wayfinding Episodes:


[00:00:00] Sarah: You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:23] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:28] Hey listeners! Welcome to another episode of Good Fit Poor Fit. If you’re a regular listener, you hear a lot about how different features of the home can make it easier for people with disabilities, and well, anyone else to use the space easily and independently. As an occupational therapist, and because my husband Scott uses a wheelchair for mobility, we get a lot of questions about what can make a home functional. That’s actually a loaded question because there are tons of things to discuss and consider. Most of the time we have to start with the most basic things to help people like steps to get inside or a bathroom and bedroom on the main floor.

[00:01:06] If we could start there, we can at least get people into their home safely with a place to sleep and use the bathroom. Right? Well, that’s a big maybe. What Rebecca and I want to focus on today is just one smaller, yet important design feature that often gets overlooked when helping make a home functional and how the littlest design features can make a big difference.

[00:01:28] You know, I love hearing other people’s stories and to bring this point home, I’ve asked our design advisors to share their thoughts on some of these features and how it impacts their lives when things are designed well and when things are not. Plus, they had some very helpful design tips from personal experiences.

[00:01:45] The goal is to get our listeners to think, wow, I never really considered that these things mattered, but they do. Rebecca and I, plus some of our Design Advisors, will tell you why. So Rebecca, why don’t you tell our listeners what often overlooked design feature of the home we’re going to talk about today, in another episode of our Candid Conversations series. 

[00:02:06] Rebecca: Yes! So today we’re going to be chatting about a space that many of us graze right over, literally, unless you have a reason to notice, most people just glance over entrances and pathways to entrances, to buildings and homes. But this is actually a really crucial feature to get right if you really want a space to be inclusive and inviting for all people. After all, if you can’t even get to the door, how are you going to participate in what’s going on inside? So let’s jump right in and talk about outdoor pathways and what our DAs think can be done to make them work better for everyone.

[00:02:41] Sarah: Perfect! I agree that oftentimes many people don’t think about these features because often they just focus on having no steps at the entrance and a door area, but they don’t consider the actual pathway to get there. Like Rebecca said, we asked our design advisors, what do we normally see in pathways that end up being a poor fit for many people?

[00:03:04] So let’s get started out with pathways to the entrance in general, and then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty. Of course, every home can have multiple entrances, and ideally more than one easily accessed entrance is preferred, especially if there’s an emergency, but the pathways to get inside a single-family home, or even an apartment complex are really important to consider.

[00:03:28] Chau is an OT and design advisor, and shares that we need to be able to clearly figure out where the entrances are. Living in a big city it’s frequently difficult to find the correct entrance in a sea of doorways. Many buildings have multiple entrances on the same side and entrances should have clear signage with good contrast that indicates where each entrance leads.

[00:03:52] Plus, I would want to add that these doors should be clearly labeled if it is an accessible entrance or not. The concept being mentioned here is called wayfinding. And we’ve chatted about this in a few of our episodes before. Check out number 37, 38, and 41 as some of our design advisors talk about that as one of their favorite UD features. I’ll link those in the show notes, but back to the topic of being able to find an accessible entrance to use. In our dream world, every entrance would not have steps, but that’s not a reality.

[00:04:23] In my experiences, Scott and I have traveled long distances to an entrance only to find it’s not easy to get in. We’ve also gone down long sidewalks only to find that at the end, there isn’t a curb cutout or a step-less entrance onto the sidewalk. When this happens, people have to find another route.

[00:04:42] They have to backtrack down the sidewalk or go the long way around, causing more fatigue. Felice Eckhouse is another design advisor and she has her own business called ElderSpaces. She also had a thought about curb cuts and I’ll explain if you don’t know what a curb cut is; it’s that little ramp-like section at the beginning and end of a sidewalk that basically removes the step of the curb, so somebody can get onto the sidewalk easily while using a wheelchair or a stroller or just walking, but Felice touches on that little tactile feature of one of those curb cuts that you might not have considered.

[00:05:19] Felice: The great question with an answer that usually bothers me is generally designed for visually impaired, those reddish cement squares with the raised bumps that are placed on sloped sidewalk corners that aren’t maintained, they’re typically cracked or they’re moved. They’re just making it more difficult for a user with the white type cane that helps them know where they are. Much more difficult when these squares are cracked and the idea being that you can go from one side of the street to the other. 

[00:05:51] Rebecca: Another design advisor shared an experience that I thought was important for our listeners to hear too. She said, quote, “It’s very frustrating how the average person never thinks about accessibility as something that’s so important in disabled peoples’ lives. They assume if there’s just one step you can still get in or how entrances that are in the rear of a building, have a ramp, so it’s all good. I have stopped and taken an owner of a new build to show him that there was no curb cut to get into his building, which had multiple businesses. His comment was just wheel down the side of a busy city, which had no sidewalks only gravel, and go across the grassy lawn to go out this cement entrance, to walkway, to enter one step gaps and cracks in the sidewalks, steep grades may as well be mountains in some cases. If educating doesn’t work, I don’t give them my business and neither does my family.” End quote. I certainly don’t blame this design advisor for their choice in where to do their business. 

[00:06:49] This is something that I see a lot where I live in Center City, Philadelphia. There are so many old buildings with entrance pathways that are cracked, have gaps, and are just really old. Don’t even get me started about the parts of the city that have original brick sidewalks. This is a really big barrier for a lot of people in terms of being able to do all the things they want and need to do in the community. So I’m really glad this DA chose to share this experience with us. 

[00:07:17] Sarah: Most definitely. It is a big deal to be able to get into these places and even harder to educate on why these features are important like she shared with us. We often talk about in universal design in homes or community settings that we love to see pathways and entrances with gently sloping pathways that give all users the ability to get inside easily. That’s much more doable with newer homes and businesses if the site is prepped for no steps to the entrance, but oftentimes if people are living in existing homes that have steps up to the entrance, the only way to make that accessible is using a ramp. Several of our design advisors talked about how retrofitting homes with ramps can be a barrier as well.

[00:07:58] Barry Long is a realtor and he’s focused on accessible homes, and he uses a wheelchair as well. He says that when a home is being modified with a ramp to help remove the barrier of steps, it’s really frustrating when they build a ramp with wood or composite decking. They run the board vertically down the ramp versus horizontally.

[00:08:17] So why is this difficult for him? He says that his wheelchair tires get caught in the grooves, either going up or down the ramp, making it difficult to move. 

[00:08:26] Felice, who we heard from earlier, also has something to say about ramps.

[00:08:31] Felice: I had a friend who built a ramp very quickly for their daughter and they didn’t put the rails on the sides because they said, she can’t do it herself, we’re pushing her anyway– Which was true in a very quick need that they had– But, one looks at it and said it makes it very unstable. Cause there’s nothing to protect them on either side of that ramp. 

[00:08:54] Sarah: At least in these situations, they were trying to improve the design by adding a ramp, but that goes to show how the ramp is built makes a big difference. And it’s not smart to compromise on safety. I’ve heard many a horror story of kids and adults falling off the side of a ramp. This can easily be prevented by following safe ramp-making guidelines outlined by the ADA if a ramp is the only design solution. Now, when there isn’t a ramp in place, steps in the pathway and/or up onto a porch are definitely a common design element to help the sidewalk or pathway reach the height of the porch. Our design advisors voiced their opinion on this barrier related to this common design feature as well.

[00:09:33] Two of our design advisors agree, both Kira and Larissa. They are OTs, and not only do they see steps as a big safety issue in general, but they note it’s common to see steps that are too high to climb on. They’re uneven from step to step like one step maybe taller than another, and many are constructed without railings for people to hold onto. 

[00:09:55] Ellen Farber is an interior designer, also a design advisor of ours, and she works with clients who are trying to age in place. She says that many individuals try to justify keeping the steps there when she works with them. She may be able to convince them to add some handrails on both sides of the steps for safety, but in the long run, it’s not the best option, especially in bad weather. She would rather see them go with a no-step option. 

[00:10:20] Other design advisors echoed thoughts about needing handrails on both sides because people could have weakness on either their left side or right side of their body. With handrails on each side, this gives everyone entering the home an option to hold on to a railing going up or going down depending on what side of their body is stronger. Another design advisor, who is also an OT makes a good point about the need for railings on long pathways.

[00:10:47] Anonymous DA: So one thing I see pretty commonly is that, the house has been made accessible by adding a, rail along the walking of the path , but it maybe doesn’t start until, a couple feet before the entrance. So then getting to the rail is still a challenge, for some individuals. The other thing that is common, some people get fatigued quite quickly. So having a long pathway can also be detrimental to those who might have COPD or, any sort of, chronic fatigue issues. 

[00:11:26] Rebecca: That’s a great point that this design advisor made about those long pathways. If you must have a long winding pathway, it’s important that the railings line the entire thing. What is the point of having a railing, if someone may fall before they even get to it? And the issue of fatigue with long pathways is a concern for many too.

[00:11:46] What I recommend is if possible having a bench or a little rest area on partway through the long pathway, this is a really universal design because it’s great, if you do have a health condition like chronic fatigue, or if you’re just carrying a heavy load or want to stop during your walk to fish for something in your bag, this design with a little rest stop really does work better for everyone.

[00:12:09] Now, I know that it was mentioned before, but I think it bears repeating. Many of our DA’s mentioned it in one way or another; uneven, broken, and narrow pathways can reap all kinds of havoc for everyone in navigating outdoor spaces and entranceways. We heard about pathways that are simply too narrow for certain mobility devices and even strollers.

[00:12:30] In addition to large cracks and crevices from tree roots, growing in exposed sprinkler heads or sewer covers, and all of these things can make it hard for everyone to navigate, whether they’re in a wheelchair, pushing a cart or stroller riding a bike or scooter, or even using crutches. The most universally usable pathways are those that are smooth wide and relatively flat.

[00:12:53] Sarah: Most definitely. Those tree roots often get me going across sidewalks too. So Rebecca, it is one thing to have pathways that are in disrepair, like you said, but there is a design trend that actually uses multiple material types. Causing even more functional issues. You’ve definitely, probably seen it before, as it’s often used as a way to make the design unique, but it’s not functional. And many design advisors agree. A lot of people talked about this. So Barry, simply states that decoration stones with grass in between them is a huge pet peeve of his. He says, they look great, but are terribly inconvenient and even dangerous when used in a pathway towards an entrance. Another design advisor, Viola Dwyer agrees.

[00:13:40] Viola: One area that really frustrates me is when there are grassy patches that are in the way of getting to whatever area I’m trying to get to. So for instance, in our apartment complex, there used to be, though they’ve created now pavers, a grassy strip to get to some outdoor grills. And I had to slowly go over that patch to get through. And sometimes patches of grass can be really tough to get through whether you’re using a manual wheelchair, power wheelchair, crutches, if you’re unsteady of a walker. Because they’re often divots and things. 

[00:14:23] Another one would be, gravel. I’ve seen this in the Southwest. We were in a Airbnb in Phoenix and they had these slabs of concrete, but in between them, I mean like huge gaps, there would be gravel. So, if you were a wheelchair user, again, unsteady on your feet, you would be stuck. Essentially. You fall into these cracks, they’re unpassable. And they would be leading to a main residence. So that is a big deal. 

[00:14:54] Sarah: Scott and I have experienced this frustration first-hand too. It’s time-consuming for people to navigate and have to watch out where they’re going and causes people to use up a lot of energy starting and stopping, trying to hit all of the paved portions of the pathway.

[00:15:11] Another team member of ours, Meaghan Walls, discussed the same scenario. She clarifies, this is not cobblestone, which is annoying and bumpy in itself, but the smooth paver to the grass or gravel just doesn’t work. She says:

[00:15:25] Meaghan: I’ve seen more and more where it creates unstable surfaces and tripping hazards or slip hazards. For the aesthetic of it, they’re making it pretty, but, it’s technically flat and not grass, it doesn’t, really work.

[00:15:41] Sarah: One other thing that was mentioned briefly was lightning. Ruchika, a design advisor of ours, and also an OT says that a lot of homes don’t have enough lighting outside when it’s dark. And I have to agree. How many times have you shuffled your way to the car had to pull out your cell phone for a flashlight? Having lighting around the parking areas and along pathways is needed to make sure everyone is aware of what’s around them.

[00:16:05] Yaser, another design advisor, suggests we should sway away from lighting that looks like a runway and I’ll add, making sure the lighting isn’t causing an illusion of more steps. Working with a lighting specialist can help in placing the lights in places for safety and security. Rebecca, do you have anything else to add about lights outside?

[00:16:24] Rebecca: I think these are all good points. The thing I love most for outdoor lighting is the use of motion-activated lights. This is great if you’re coming home late and want to safely navigate to the door, having the security and knowing that the lights will come on for you outside your garage or your front door without you having to do anything is a real game changer.

[00:16:43] Sarah: Yeah, I agree. Great for safety, but also for that guest who is coming in at night and you haven’t quite gotten around to turning outside lights on. So this is all great information on how much of a poor fit pathways can be for people. But don’t fret listeners! Our design advisor, Jedida Milton, gave us a good summary of what outside pathway characteristics should look like.

[00:17:06] Jedida: The first point is the path should be wide enough so that a standard wheelchair or a scooter should be able to pass through. It should have enough space to maneuver so that one or two people can also accompany, the person in a wheelchair or a scooter. Second would be the texture of the surface. This should be as smooth as possible. Grass, wood chips, gravel do not provide a good amount of traction, which is essential for people with balance issues or someone who’s in a wheelchair. The third point is the material that’s used generally hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt makes the number one choice for the initial pathway that leads to the house.

[00:17:47] Something that I have noticed is a lot of landscape artists put in a lot into making the space aesthetically pleasing, but, when they miss out these key factors, it makes it difficult for people who are actually in need of it. 

[00:18:00] Sarah: And I have to agree, keep it simple, smooth, wide, flat, and easy to navigate. 

[00:18:06] Rebecca: That is a good motto to work with. Sarah, keep it simple. The next thing we asked our design advisors about this topic was when outdoor pathways up to an entrance are designed well or a good fit, how does that improve your life or someone that you care for? This was my personal favorite question that we posed to them. What do you think, Sarah?

[00:18:28] Sarah: Yes. I really love hearing these answers. It just really warms your heart and honestly reduces my anxiety to hear about how much value these features have in everyone’s lives when they are a good fit. There are a lot of great short comments to describe a good fit for pathways, and it didn’t all have to do with features. Many had to do with emotional well-being and independence. One of my favorite comments was from Barry. He said, “If the path is done correctly, I don’t even notice it.” How simple is that? You don’t even have to think about it, it just works. Barry continues, “It’s a good thing for both safety and peace of mind.”

[00:19:05] Other quick responses include that a pathway with a good fit improves self-efficacy, reduces anxiety, and just makes life so much easier. It eliminates fear, builds confidence, and doesn’t cause worry if someone can get to home or visit an event. It gives back independence. Not only independence, but another design advisor mentioned with a well-designed entrance, it just saves people time and energy. 

[00:19:30] Anonymous DA: It can just save a lot of time if somebody has easy entry into the home or an easy entry out of the home. Again, going back to chronic fatigue or somebody with COPD this, allows them to use maybe more energy for other tasks or activities that they are wanting to do once they either get out of their home or once they get back into their home. 

[00:19:52] Sarah: This makes so much sense. Oftentimes people with disabilities have to decide what to put forth their time toward during the day to complete the tasks they need to do. If the design could be made easier to reduce the effort required, they might be able to do more throughout the day versus determine if they have enough endurance or energy to complete a task, say going out to get the mail or maybe to go visit a friend. 

[00:20:14] I love how Ellen Farber, our design advisor, states that “many people may not even realize that it’s not easy to get out of their house and it’s actually holding them back in the things they do within their life. Once that barrier is removed, they realize they are able to have visitors come in and out, and it opens up new opportunities for themselves and their family members and friends.”

[00:20:36] OT student, Sally Kiker also makes a good point that this pathway isn’t just for those with disabilities. “It’s an avenue which welcomes family members and community members of all ages and abilities. In a way it’s kind of like this design element of an outside pathway is access to your outside world. And that one barrier can prevent you from socializing and connecting with others. Then when it’s not a barrier and the fit is good, it’s like an open door to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” Larissa, an OT agrees. She says, “A good fit increases the chances of my patients actually getting outside and engaging in community activities.” She continues, “I find it sad when, in acute care we need an ambulance with a stretcher scheduled for discharge to get someone inside their home because they lack the physical abilities to manage their environmental challenges.”

[00:21:28] I agree. Larissa, that is definitely unfortunate. And when they get back home, they’re basically stuck inside. Ruchika is an OT and she brings up another important piece. When an entrance and pathway is easy to use, then it’s faster for someone to get to you and for you to get out in an emergency.

[00:21:46] Can you imagine if your house was on fire and you are unable to get out because there were steps blocking your exit? That’s really scary. Jedida also mentions how important this element is for caregiver confidence, as well as for letting family members with mobility impairments go in and out of their house on their own.

[00:22:04] Jedida: So safety is the key. Once everything fits well or the person using the accessibility device feels safe, feels confident to use it, and, the caregiver, even they have confidence to let them use it independently. But if there was any design issue or if there was a problem with the pathways then you need some more additional assistance.

[00:22:28] Sarah: Meaghan Walls agrees and also notes, unexpected conveniences for other people as well. 

[00:22:34] Meaghan: I think just like a lot of solutions, when that barrier is removed and the surface is minimally sloped and smooth and lighted and stable, it just means that when we have a gathering at our home or, we can invite whoever that we know and know that there’s not going to be any struggle getting in or that my grandparents aren’t going to have difficulties. 

[00:23:00] I also think it’s important for people who are doing home delivery or who come to work on the house and being able to get to, and from efficiently and safely, property liability, I guess, is, you know, a subset of that. It just means that I don’t have to worry about injury, accident, or access.

[00:23:19] Sarah: I want to end with this great comment from one of our team members, Viola.

[00:23:24] Viola: The way that it improves your life, would be by not thinking about it and not having to, pay special time and effort just to get to where you want to go. It makes living on the same plane as everybody else when they get to an entrance or get through some pathway without thinking about. You can continue with your conversation that you may have been interrupted by because of a bad pathway. You can think about something else you could perhaps look up and look in the sky. There are all sorts of ways in which having an accessible well-designed path could benefit people. It’s a disruptor when it’s not well designed, it’s a headache. It can be a place where injury could happen. So, I think it’s an ease of living and a peace of mind. 

[00:24:19] Rebecca: I think Viola hit the nail on the head as to why this whole topic is so important. And it’s a great way to wrap up this episode. Before we log off, though, I’d like to thank all of our Design Advisors for your time and insight for this and all of our episodes. You bring these topics to life. And Sarah, it was a pleasure recording with you again, after a little break. Thanks to all of our listeners!

[00:24:40] And we’ll be back again soon here at Good Fit Poor Fit stay safe and well.

[00:24:45] Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected]. Thanks for fitting us into your day!


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